Re-Experiencing Lois Lowry’s The Giver: A YANY Residency Program

I was lucky enough to sit in on a Young Audiences New York (YANY) performance of their Literature to Life® Stage Presentation of The Giver, a classic young adult novel by Lois Lowry.  The story follows an eleven-year-old boy named Jonas who lives in a futuristic society that has removed all poverty, hunger, war, and prejudice- as well as freedom of choice. Everything in the community is controlled and organized to make life as convenient and standardized as possible.  When he turns 12-years-old, the age children are assigned to their professions, Jonas is given the esteemed assignment of “Receiver of Memory,” the exclusive keeper of the community’s collective memory from the days before the society entered a state of “sameness.”  Jonas receives these memories of the past, both pleasing and painful, from the previous Receiver, a wise old man who Jonas now calls the Giver.  Through this process, Jonas- and the reader- come to recognize the importance of individuality and freewill.

I read the book in 5th grade and still remembered the story and seemingly tranquil community setting.  Yet as I experienced the novel once again alongside a New York City 7th grade class the story and its themes came alive in a new and engaging way. 

Teaching Artist Brendan Boland kicked off the program with a pre-show discussion with the student audience, all of whom had read The Giver in English class.  He asked the students specific questions about the novel, and posed true or false statement to the entire audience, asking them all to respond with hand gestures.  The interactive nature of the discussion encouraged engagement from the whole room, and prepared the students for the performance by planting seeds about the novel’s themes, and transporting the students to the world of The Giver.

  

The story itself was performed by a single actress, Liz Parker, who portrayed all of the characters ranging from 11-year-old Jonas to the elderly Giver.  Her representations of each character were distinguished by contrasting postures, movements, elevations, and voices.  Jared, a 7th grader who watched the performance explained that her diversity of portrayals was his favorite aspect of the performance.  “She would go deeper into the father’s voice and then act like a little kid when she went into the sister’s,” he observed.  Another 7th grader, Yazmin, indicated that the performance taught her about the art of stage acting, saying “I learned that there are many ways that you can show a character.”

The students were excited to bring the action to life themselves when, during a pivotal scene in the play, several volunteers read lines from the audience.  The learners also expressed their satisfaction with the end of the story, when Jonas decides to run away with the toddler Gabriel, who would otherwise be killed.  Yazmin said that this was one of her favorite parts of the play, and that she appreciated Jonas’ bravery when he decided to save Gabriel instead of leaving the community by himself.  

At the end of the program, Brendan and Liz spoke with the students about how the performance had impacted them, and brainstormed ways that a society can solve problems such as hunger and violence without resorting to the “sameness” in Jonas’ community.  I had the opportunity to speak to Liz, who described why she loves performing for students, and explained that “talk-backs” like these are what have inspired her to become a professional actress: “It’s fun to hear young people talk about literature and big questions," she said, "the ability for theater to engage a community in these really difficult questions has driven me to become more involved and make it my life.”

I would like to thank the staff and artists of YANY for the opportunity to attend this performance, as well as the students who shared their insights with me.

Check out some of what Liz and Yazmin had to say below: 

 

Contributed by Emily Lattal, Marketing Intern at Young Audiences Arts for Learning.

 

 

 

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